AAAS Report Analyzes Effective Ways to Engage Scientists in Policy

Project looks at programs worldwide to glean insights and foster collaboration

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Scientists and policymakers exchanged ideas at a AAAS-TWAS science diplomacy course | Demis Albertacci/TWAS

BOSTON — As the need for science in policymaking grows along with the complexity of challenges facing society, AAAS is issuing a report providing a panoramic view of programs that physically place scientists and engineers in the policy environment — mapping what works best to develop the personal relationships, trust and productive dialogue needed to bridge two very different worlds.

“This report documents and catalogues, for the first time, the different models for engaging scientists and engineers with the policy sphere around the world,” said Marga Gual Soler, project director at the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and report co-chair. “It will serve as a guide for the scientific and policy communities to establish new science policy immersion programs and strengthen existing linkages between science and policymakers at all levels.”

The report grew at least partly out of the success of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program, begun in 1973, which has placed more than 3,000 scientists and engineers in U.S. congressional offices and committees, executive-branch agencies, and, most recently, the judiciary. Viewed as a model internationally, the program has for years received inquiries from governments, organizations and scientists interested in launching their own programs. So far, organizations at the state, national and international levels have launched ten programs modeled on STPF, and two more are planned.

“There has been steady interest in creating new initiatives over the past 15 years,” said Cynthia Robinson, senior policy adviser at AAAS, former director of STPF and report co-chair. “A new generation of scientists is demanding opportunity to engage to shape our future.”

With growing recognition of the global need for better incorporation of evidence-based information into policymaking — to face challenges related to water, food, energy, healthcare, the economy, the environment and security — the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation provided funding for the 18-month analysis of science-policy mechanisms, including STPF, to determine best practices and what factors are correlated with the programs’ success.

The focus of the report on immersive programs derived from past successes associated with interpersonal connections established between scientists and policymakers, rather than scientific reports about specific issues made available to government on a one-time basis. 

“Policymaking is a participatory sport,” said Tom Wang, AAAS Chief International Officer, director of the AAAS Center of Science Diplomacy and report co-chair. “For science to be effectively used in policymaking, scientist and engineers must develop positive relationships with policymakers.”

The report, which drew on information from nearly 200 different parties involved in science and policymaking, called for better recognition of the civic contribution of scientists and engineers who engage with policymakers and better institutional support “to engage and nurture a new generation of scientists around the world to meet current and future demand” for scientists capable of navigating between science and policy.

The analysis also identified multinational programs, which are especially important when they involve countries with limited funding and few scientists and when they approach problems that are regional or even global. Such programs present opportunities to strengthen relationships between countries, said Gual Soler. “International cooperation in science-policy engagement is an emerging dimension of science diplomacy.”

Also in the report was a finding that alumni of immersive science-policy connection programs tend to remain engaged in policy throughout their careers, and those who return to academia incorporate units on policy and science communication into their teaching.

“[The alumni] represent a significant international resource of highly qualified, adaptable professionals able to span the boundaries of science and policy to effect solutions for global challenges,” the report stated.

Next steps will include applying the knowledge presented in the report as a number of other countries develop their own programs. Also, an online portal will be launched to connect program participants, alumni and administrators “into a global network to foster mutual learning and collaboration,” Wang said.

“There is the exciting opportunity,” said Robinson, “to foster collaborations that can have even greater impact.”

[Associated Image: Tolullah Oni spoke at a World Science Forum in Budapest, which brought together scientists and policymakers from all over the world. Credit: Hungarian Academy of Sciences]